Tangents

The Greg Bear Raw Feed series continues.

This title includes the story that turned into Blood Music.

Raw Feed (1990): Tangents, ed. Greg Bear, 1989.Tangents

Blood Music” — This was even creepier than Bear’s novel of the same expansion. By shifting the narrator from the novel’s third person to first person, Bear heightens the already present horror in the novel. The narrator relates the horror and grandeur of being transformed by microscopic creatures within. Like most tales of transformation and transcendence, there is a mixture of awe, grandeur, and horror. Indeed, those tend to be the reactions of most sf readers (in varying ratios) to the possible futures presented in them. Vergil Ulam is a realistic “mad” scientist — a technician of the most dangerous, if uncommon, sort — one who gives no thought to the implications inherent in the use, as opposed to just the pursuit, of his knowledge.

Sleepside Story” — This was a pleasant example of what Bear calls an urban fairy tale. I’m sure there are other examples of this sort of thing, but this is my first exposure to the sub-genre. All the fairy tale elements are here: three brothers (the oldest two stupid and greedy), a rescue, a princess of sorts, a journey among the dead. There is also a strange city with an eerie, sinister subway). The character of Miss Belle Parkhurst, whore, added a note of grittiness to the story. Yet her character and her attempts to escape the weight of the past were poignant.

Webster” — An interesting and poignant fantasy. I liked Regina Coates reverence for the dictionary as a book containing all thought, all potentials, all emotions. It’s a way of thinking about the dictionary that hadn’t occurred to me before. I liked the idea of creating a man from the dictionary, and Webster’s mental processes. The metaphor for life suggests that life can be thought of as a collection of words that is gradually organized as time goes on. Each life is a potential of all the words.

A Martian Ricorso” — This story shows that Bear’s Queen of Angels and its concern for character and its skillful portrait of people were not an accident. The alien life form on Mars is interesting. Some of the classic elements of the alien-contact story are present: are the aliens really intelligent or behaving and building out of elaborate instinct? are the aliens a threat? should the astronauts act to defend themselves against what does not seem to be a premeditated, malicious act? But the best part of the story is the tense conflict between the astronauts and how Bear sums up their personalities in a few concise lines. However, the ending seems a big perfunctory as if it is just there to provide the note of foreboding these type of stories are supposed to have.

Dead Run” — I like stories about Hell, the Underworld, and life after death. This is a highly original adaptation of the Apocrypha’s Harrowing of Hell with an added slant against right wing Christian types. In this story, Hell is a necessary concept but one that has been corrupted by the man running it so that the undeserving are sent there. I enjoyed The Twilight Zone version of this story and would like to know the extent Bear changed the story for this collection. He said he liked scriptwriter Alan Brennert’s version better as far as ending goes and changed the story accordingly.

Schrödinger’s Plague” — An evil, clever story. Bear wrought a variation on the mad scientist theme. A scientist decides, with the life of almost all man at stake, to really prove Schrodinger’s cat story one way or another. He exposes man to the potential of dying in a plague, a plague whose presence may depend, according to quantum theory, on what the knowing parties expect to find. As Bear says in his Introduction, the outcome of the story is, according to physicists he knows, impossible. Like Bear, though, I’m not sure what in quantum physics forbids it. The number of conscious observers?, the fact that the outcome of the quantum event — the presence of a deadly rhinovirus — can not be determined (the virus is undetectable in blood but certainly detectable in effect)? what interpretation of quantum mechanics (Parallel worlds? Mathematical formalism a la Bohr?) one takes? Bear said this story was one of the inspirations for physicist John Gribbin writing his In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat.

Through Road No Whither” — A trite story that has Nazis from an alternate timeline in 1979 (where German Nazis successively conquered Europe) punished by what seems to be a divine presence who transports them to our timeline circa 1944.

Tangents” — Even reading this story the second time around, I still can’t see what made it attractive enough to win a Hugo and Nebula. (But the decisions of the voting bodies are often a puzzle.) It’s a pleasant enough story. But the idea of beings from another dimension, or, more accurately, of more than our dimensions, isn’t new. It’s just adequately done here. It isn’t particularly heartwarming. There seems to be a certain vacancy in the relationships between the characters. The conflict between Peter Thornton and Irving Hockrum seems contrived. I don’t know if people voted because they found homosexual Peter Thornton’s relationship with a young boy (a strictly nonsexual one) daring. I suspect so. I did find it interesting that Bear says this is a bitter parable of English mathematician Alan Turing’s life.

Sisters” — This story’s main interest lies with Bear, in his “Introduction” stating that this was a dry run for the treatment of themes he was to explore in his Queen of Angels. Both works deal with perfecting man Here it is done with physical engineering, via genetics, of their body, and the novel with engineering the mind via therapy. Both deal with the reactions of the engineered and non-engineered and their relationships with each other. This story almost works. It’s kind of heartwarming, certainly, and an accurate description of a teenager’s feelings. The title works on two levels. Bear has some interesting things to say about how society (and the engineered and nonengineered as individuals) would react to the idea of Pre Planned Children. The PPC’s feel almost like mass produced cars as they talk of model years and incept dates. They are smart and beautiful but have a hard time being unique, becoming recognized as individuals. And they feel a strange separation from their family because they do not share their family’s genetic likeness. The TBs (Throwbacks — the non-engineered), of course, feel ugly, but they certainly know they’re unique and that they’re part of a family line. Reena Cathcart, PPC, and Letitia Blakely, TB, grow up as their friendship grows. But then, I think, Bear goes slightly awry, becomes a bit contrived. There doesn’t seem to be much point to having the design defect in many of Blakely’s PPC classmates except to wring some emotion out from Blakely’s reaction. (Though the wake the kids have for one of their own is quite realistic and somewhat moving.) Bear almost stumbles into another trap. But Bear is certainly no neo-Luddite (quite the reverse I would say) so the idea of PPC as being inherently bad is rejected at story’s end. PPC and TBs both have their advantages nor is it wrong, Blakely says at story’s end, to engineer PPC. A mistake was made that’s all.

“The Machineries of Joy” — This is an article originally commissioned for Omni magazine but never used. Most of what Bear talks about as the artistic and social fallout of the dawning Information Age (he concentrates on the developing computer graphic revolution) are by now realized (after all Bear wrote this in 1984). His extrapolation of future trends at article’s end is not very novel now but that’s not Bear’s fault.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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